Moral Philosophy

Ethics Part 11: Utilitarianism, Positivism and the Descent into Nihilism Still Masquerading as Scientific Certainty

history nothing

Jeremy Bentham’s stuffed body was on display at the University College, London for 150 years.  Before he died he gave us such wonders as the panopticon and utilitarianism as a replacement for earlier types of ethics that is supposedly based on science rather than superstition, and legal postivism  which was about legal reform to remove ethics or concepts of natural rights from consideration in matters of law. He believed that history could teach us nothing since we had progressed beyond it. Sting, who drew inspiration from hippie-patois-speaking, talk-show circuit darling, globalist-technocrat pundit and Benthamite retread Buckminster Fuller, reminds us that if history teaches us anything since Bentham it is that we should keep a weather eye cocked for philosophers or pop stars who say history teaches us nothing.

Auguste Comte authored another positivism, which was the scientific philosophy that was supposed to replace all forms of theological and metaphysical thinking as mankind progressed based on firmly fixed laws of nature. In his time important philosophers and men of science believed the compendium of important knowledge was nearing completion and what was left for 19th century man to do was work out the details and set up the perfect, scientifically ordered society that would rule in peace and harmony forever. Harriet Martineau, who rendered in odd but intelligible prose the incomprehensible, redundant and dull balderdash of the master, said in her introduction to his thought that Comte had solved what was the cause of what disciples like ur-sociologist Emile Durkheim would later term anomie, or alienation. According to Comte, this widespread mental and moral confusion came from having only lately emerged from the slime of mythological and abstract thinking and his positivism would allow our actions to be based only on fact so our lives could be guided by the true philosopher kings of science, such as Comte himself. Having been the secretary of socialist mountebank Saint-Simon who became quickly disenchanted with the great socialist’s sloppy thinking and erratic ways, Comte went on to create the perfect system whereby the mindless masses could be controlled for their own good. Of course this all sounded great to Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Mao and their many enthusiastic followers who certainly could never be confused with the type of folks who slaughtered children for Jesus and the Pope a couple hundred years earlier. But remember, history will teach us nothing.

John Stuart Mill saw Comte’s program for the monomaniacal farce that it was and said so in his famous essay, On Liberty. Drawing from the great libertarian Wilhelm von Humboldt’s important Limits of State Action, which was written in 1792 but not published until 1850, Mill departed from the socialism of his teachers, Bentham and his father James, and advocated min-archism as integral to his form of liberalism. This has always bothered so called progressives and latter day liberal thinkers who either openly or secretly want to be part of Lenin’s vanguard telling everyone else what to do in all matters big or small and who are therefore in accord with Mussolini who raged in his totalitarian politics of resentment, “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”  Unfortunately for Mill, his utilitarianism is stuffed with the same straw as Bentham’s corpus.

Nietzsche would later explain anomie as due to nearly the opposite cause that Martineau/Comte cite. It isn’t that people are crazy because they only just got introduced to science and still have to throw off the chains of their theology and metaphysics; it is that since science killed God, man is filled with nihilism and dread and has not learned to live with the reality he has laid bare of the shroud that previously provided comfort. Jordan Peterson agrees with this assessment and has lots of anthropology and hard neuroscience and clinical practice to back him up. It turns out science teaches us that what some prophets of science told us about our world and how we understand it is factually wrong and history can teach us quite a lot.


Bentham picked up where Hobbes left off on all people being driven exclusively by self-interest. To account for the obvious fact that people are social creatures, and that in his view, society was the sovereign, which was a weird bastardization of Hobbes and Rousseau, he concocted his greatest happiness principle. In effect, because everyone desires happiness (though what this actually means and where it comes from he doesn’t say), individuals (who otherwise have no power or significance apart from the group and therefore shouldn’t be capable of individual intention) desire the maximization of happiness for all.  It is this greatest happiness that is the measure of “right” and “wrong,” terms which themselves ought to have no significance in a philosophy without history, where human development couldn’t have occurred and human progress should be impossible but which is taken entirely for granted.  Of course individual rights were important for Bentham but it was “nonsense on stilts” to say they came from God or that we have any inborn moral sense.  How this philosophy of anti-logic could ever have been considered grounded in empirical science I can’t imagine, but it is what is generally accepted by all those who want to claim that values in modern society can somehow emerge from the head of Zeus (who of course is a nonsense construct from before Bacon blinded us with SCIENCE) fully formed without cause or support in a way that is entirely value-free, thereby making it a pseudo grounding for liberal policy makers, which it has been ever since.

Bentham wanted to make his mark in legal theory and public policy, and he certainly did because the concept of “hedonic” adjustments used by the Federal Reserve Bank and U.S. Treasury comes right from him. This allows bureaucrat CENTRAL PLANNERS to pretend that inflation doesn’t exist because what is going up in cost the most relative to stagnant wages (healthcare, housing, food, education – all the unimportant stuff) doesn’t matter as much as what kind of TV you can buy. Critics said Bentham’s thinking was as inimical to liberty as to natural rights but this has been mostly ignored. It must be fake news or something. What did resonate was the criticism that Bentham’s theory did not account for justice in any way that could be construed as fair. J.S. Mill tried to address this in his work that was even more logically incoherent than Bentham’s, and for which Rawls’ Theory of Justice is a modern attempt at an alternative theory. I hope to come back to Rawls in a later post but for right now, I am going to close out this very brief (and admittedly sarcastic) introduction to utilitarianism by saying, I can’t think of any good reason to spend more time explaining a moral theory that is so unworthy of consideration. Nonsense on stilts indeed.

Impact on Information Ethics in 21st Century

Teachers of ethics at business schools where they even bother to teach it try to make their offering “practical,” in the sense it can be used in ordinary situations by people of normal means and intelligence. They also try to make it as value-neutral as possible, which means they want a means of making decisions and agreeing upon rules of behavior that will not rely on metaphysics or theology or anything that is likely to be offensive to a significant plurality of students or practitioners (but they disingenuously smuggle Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza and Kant at least into their product). This means they have adopted utilitarianism and positivism in principle without debate and, frankly, without thought. This is dogma and is the default “liberal” position of academia. As such, it is in violent opposition to the value biases that are inherent in humans and which evolved over millennia. This is not merely opinion, and while subject to challenge, it is a viewpoint that is well and truly supported based on facts. I can’t review all of this in this space and my task is not to present a detailed philosophical argument in a blog post, it is merely to indicate high level issues and questions that should be of interest to anyone who is serious about developing a framework for ethics.  I will however state my position, based on long study, that utilitarianism and positivism are dangerous and just plain wrong.  As I have mentioned going back to the earliest posts on this thread, we know from history, science and, dare I say it, revelation, that humans are demonstrably wired for connection to the absolute, to be truth tellers and prefer truth telling, to take care of the vulnerable and to confront evil (and they know that when they see it). It is true that they don’t always do these things, but when they don’t it creates dissonance. This is so as far back as we can tell but at least for many millennia, and is true across all places where humans dwell or have left evidence of culture.  At this point, the truth of this idea is far more certain than the human impact on the global climate, unless you are an ideologue posing as a scientist. Like Kant and many others before him, I aver that our ethical sense, in the way Shaftsbury meant it, is deontological, which makes Hobbes, Bentham, Comte, Mill and most recent ethicists factually incorrect based on the best available information. If you have read the posts here up to this point you have my justification for this viewpoint in the shortest form in which I can cogently present it.

Again, what does this mean for information ethics today? Simply put, it’s this:

  • Individual persons have rights endowed by God/Mother Nature/Logos or whatever you want to call it. They need to understand this and they need to act on the basis of this understanding to continue to live lives that are as human as they can be. Freedom is our birthright but it isn’t free. That means we must each fight for it (not provide worship and an open checkbook to some class of guardians or sheep dogs)
  • These rights were eloquently spelled out in sources I have described or quoted and most of those are from 200 to 2,500 years old, but draw on much older sources and oral traditions. This makes them valuable, not stupid
  • Everyone who reads this should know that when the chairman of a certain tech/search/media company whose motto was until recently “don’t be evil,” said to congress that his company doesn’t put a fat finger on search results to manipulate masses of people in an experiment of social engineering, or censor content deliberately, he was lying. When he said “it’s just an algorithm,” he was preying on ignorance. No doubt his company’s nudge-manship to subvert the choices of millions, and their ability to get at truth and be self-governing, were made on utilitarian and therefore “ethical” grounds
  • There are many other examples like this that involve the unethical handling of data and I will not exhaustively enumerate them. You already know what this means
  • Over to you. What kind of a world do you want to live in? One where there is rule of law and respect for individuals or one where there isn’t. Time’s up. Choose

By vitruvius1

Formerly an integrated marketing and customer experience consultant. Writer on moral philosophy and current affairs.

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